Tesco has said it will investigate the circumstances of a series of violent demonstrations at factories in Bangladesh where workers have been protesting for higher wages and better working conditions.
Britain's largest retailer confirmed that the affected factories were owned by one of its suppliers, although the locations where the demonstrations took place were not involved in providing products to Tesco. It said, however, that it would look into what led to the demonstrations at the factories owned by the Nassa Group of garment manufacturers.
"We have recently audited all of our suppliers' sites in Bangladesh and do not believe the workers' grievances are related to these locations," a spokesman said last night. "However as a responsible organisation we will of course discuss the issue with Nassa to make sure we understand whether this is a group-wide issue or if the workers were protesting about specific issues."
Bangladeshi troops were called in after several thousand garment workers held fierce demonstrations on Saturday, protesting against the sudden closure of a factory in the Tejgaon industrial district of the capital, Dhaka. Reports suggested that at least 20 factories were damaged and a bus was set on fire as almost all the industrial premises in the area were shut down. Around 100 people were hurt.
Local media reported that tension has been simmering at the factories for several days with Nassa workers demanding an increase in wages to cover the cost of traditional Iftar meals, taken to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan. Reports said that the anger boiled over when Nassa's management responded to the demands by closing down four industrial units.
The Daily Star newspaper claimed that police called to deal with the demonstrations said the cause of the trouble was the "arrogance" of the factory owners. "We asked them to resolve the issue to avoid untoward incidents. But they said they were not bound to have talks with the workers," it quoted a senior police official as saying.
The paper also quoted some of the industrial area's 25,000 workers who complained of "inhumane" conditions. They said workers were routinely docked a considerable percentage of their wages and overtime for taking even a moment's break. "They beat us up even for a minor mistake," said one worker.
South Asia has long been the focus of efforts by campaigners to draw attention to "sweat shop conditions". Earlier this month two other major British clothes retailers, Primark and Mothercare, said they would investigate conditions at the factories of their suppliers in India after a newspaper investigation revealed the low wages their workers were paid. Similar investigations have focused on Bangladesh.
Mark Osborn of the campaign group No Sweat, said: "Workers often suffer long hours, unpaid overtime and dangerous work conditions at the hands of anti-union bosses. The supermarkets don't care much about such things, geared as they are to making as much profit as possible."
But Tesco, which this year announced a 13 per cent increase of profits which totaled £2.5bn, insisted that earlier this year it completed an audit of more than 40 factories operated by its suppliers in Bangladesh. "We are very proud of our ethical trading standards, which have contributed to a higher standard of living for the employees of our suppliers in developing countries," said a spokesman.